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Made in Petaluma: Wrestling drama with deep local roots

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“I like feel-good movies,” says producer-actor Ali Afshar. “I like taking difficult situations, and putting a positive spin on them, showing how a loss can be turned into a win. That’s what “American Wrestler” is all about.”

Afshar, who grew up in Petaluma in the 1980s, has made six movies here over the last two years, and “American Wrestler: The Wizard” — filmed in April of 2015, picked up by Warner Bros., and set for a special, one-day-only “event” release at theaters across the country — is, in many ways, one of the most autobiographical films Afshar has made.

Directed by Alex Ranavirello, from a script by Brian Rudnick, it’s the story of 17-year-old Ali (George Kosturos), a refugee from Iran, who’s viewed with suspicion by the populace of the small California town his family takes refuge in. At school, he talks his way onto the wrestling team despite the doubts of the coach (William Fichtner) and the hard-as-nails principal (Jon Voight), and becomes known as “the wizard” for the startling speed with which he can pin opponents. Like other films of its kind (“Karate Kid,” “Footloose”), the challenges mount, and the toughest fight Ali must face is the one he’s fighting against his own fears.

“ ‘American Wrestler’ starts out a little tough, because that’s how it was,” says Afshar, speaking from his home in Hollywood. “It’s the story of almost any kid moving to a new town in a new area. But it ends up being very positive, leaving Petaluma looking pretty good. Petaluma is the town I call home, I’m very fond of it. That’s why I keep coming back to make movies there.”

He has no plans to stop.

After appearing in town at an “American Wrestler” red-carpet event at Boulevard Cinemas on May 3, Afshar will returning three week’s later to shoot the movie’s sequel, with filming planned for six weeks in June and July.

“The sequel will be called, “American Wrestler: the Fighter,”” Afshar says. With a laugh, he adds, “I think that’s what it’s going to be called, anyway. Things change all the time in this businesses, so we’ll see. In the new film, the Ali character goes to college, and gets involved with some underground “Fight Club” kind of scenarios. That’s all I can say right now, but it’s going to really good, I think.”

Afshar admits that, when the film was originally made, he had no idea how timely its message would be when the film was finally released.

“It’s a good message for right now,” he says. “People are talking about some of these same issues again, in a whole new way. I think it’s a good time for this movie to come out.”

The film is set during the Iran hostage crisis, when nearly 60 Americans were held hostage in Tehran for 444 days. It was a tough time to be an Iranian living in small town America, with emotions pushed to a breaking point, and violence not uncommon. Afshar says that some of the abuse that Ali encounters in the film came directly from what his older brothers experienced back then.

“Yes, some of the high school stuff is what my brothers went through, and all the wrestling stuff is what I went through,” Afshar says. “It’s a combination of all of my family members’ stories of coming to America, and going through the difficulties of being an Iranian immigrant in the late seventies and early eighties. Anyone coming from Iran at that time would be familiar with what we show in this film.”

Younger audiences, he allows, will certainly be too young to remember that time, though he points out that his film is not the first movie to be set during the Iran Hostage Crisis.

“If you saw the movie “Argo,” then you’ll know what this is about,” he says. “But ultimately, we wanted to put a positive spin on it. Because it wasn’t all bad. Good things came from what we all went through, eventually.”

In the film, Casa Grande High School’s name is changed to East Petaluma High School, and the town itself is mentioned by name several times. Asked if the film’s early scenes of bullying could make Petaluma of the 1980s look like a rough place to grow up, Afshar laughs again.

“I love Petaluma,” he says. “I will always think of it fondly, and think of it as my home. Coming back is always a pleasure, and that’s why I keep making my movies there.”

Some of those other movies made here have yet to be released, including “Running Wild,” starring Sharon Stone, and “Ride,” featuring Ludacris.

Afshar mentions his appreciation for the support of Petaluma businesses and City Hall, and for Forrest Lucas, the oil magnate whose financial support has allowed him to make his films his own way. In “American Wrestler,” he even plays Ali’s uncle, who teaches the boy some important lessons about winning and losing.

Of recreating his memoif being a young wrestler, Afshar says making the movie was an emotional experience, all the more so because he filmed in the same places where those memopries took place.

“It was surreal, that’s for sure,” he says. “In high school, I was too small to play football, so that’s why I got into wrestling. I was good at it. I made the Varsity team in my freshman year. Wrestling taught me a lot of lessons I’ve kept through life.

“Wrestling is tough, but you have to commit,” he goes on. “Win or lose, you have to give it your all. There’s no one to blame if you lose. You can’t blame the quarterback, you can’t blame the point guard. If you lose, you take that on yourself and you learn from it — so that the next time, you win.”

(E-mail David at david.templeton@arguscourier.com)